Conference Review: Beyond Two Cultures, King’s College, Dec 2009

Conference Review

Beyond Two Cultures, King’s College London, December 11th, 2009

This stimulating one-day conference at King’s marked the fiftieth anniversary of C. P. Snow’s Rede lecture on the ‘two cultures’ in 1959. Incorporating three panels with participants from a broad range of disciplines was both ambitious and commendable. The conference aimed to look ‘beyond’ the nature of Snow’s original distinction and explore manifestations of the current relationship between science and the arts in the twenty-first century.

A recurrent theme throughout the day was the question of what relative ‘value’ is offered by the sciences and the humanities. Starting the day, Alister McGrath proposed that the relationship between science and the humanities was more akin to a ‘spectrum’ than an opposition of two realms, but that the two display quite different attitudes to authority and tradition, as well as to information. In his view, past authorities are revered in subjects such as literature or philosophy, and that engagement with them is seen as a way of moving forward. In the sciences, on the other hand, new knowledge is considered to be of greater value and information - or practice-based innovations are more highly prized. In view of those differences, Professor McGrath advocated adopting an approach of ‘critical realism’, whereby it is accepted that disciplines perceive ‘reality’ in different ways and engage with it on different levels; these are appropriate to the nature, purpose and expertise of each discipline and should, therefore, be considered equally valid.

In the research report by Sara Donetto and Alan Cribb that followed, however, it was evident that medical students at least do not consider knowledge from different disciplines to be equally valuable. Apparently, ‘soft’ knowledge from areas such as ethics is often considered by those in science to be less worthwhile than factual knowledge, partly because it is seen to involve a ‘loss of science’ but also because of the greater open-endedness in the way it is taught and of the assessment methods in these fields. Similar reservations can operate in medicine more widely. Some medical scientists will argue that cancer patients and their doctors would rather have a new drug treatment than a new theory about the nature of suffering. On the other hand, those in the medical humanities ask fundamental questions about the purpose of medicine and the meaning of illness experiences that can easily be lost within a scientific frame of reference. Ultimately Donetto and Cribb asked whether it is better to think in terms of multidisciplinarity or interdisciplinarity when seeking to forge closer links between science and ethics in medicine and argued for the importance of encouraging more critical reflexivity about these, and other, matters in the medical school.

The benefits of simultaneous yet distinct epistemologies were advocated further by Chris Abbott, in relation to ICT and Media studies, and by Robert Zimmer, in art and computing. Zimmer evoked an image of ‘clashing points’ that offer ‘creative chances’ and illustrated these with some of the digital modelling techniques that are now vital aspects of scientific innovation. It was precisely these qualities of lively cross-curricular exchange and adaptability that David Amigoni suggested might be the most valuable contribution from humanities. Amigoni asked whether an active understanding of traditions of discourse in both the humanities and the sciences might help bridge the gaps between disciplines; having already worked from Matthew Arnold’s initial definition of ‘culture’ as ‘the best that has been thought and said’, through Raymond Williams’s search for a ‘common culture’ in the 1950s, he emerged, finally, with the concept of a new ‘third culture’, proposed by John Brockman, which is perhaps exemplified and complicated by the writings of Ian McEwan (see It is engagements of this kind, between history, education and visual technologies, not to mention literature and science, which have fuelled the extraordinarily creative development of school teaching resources that were described in Eleanor Brodie’s final presentation.

Throughout the day it was observed that, despite the difficulties of reclaiming a polymath intellectual tradition, the similarities between disciplines are often greater than the differences. At the same time, disciplinarity itself was recognised as a valuable source of strength, support and research depth. In the combination of the two perspectives, there appears to lie a desire for more genuinely integrated models of learning and knowledge, such as those of the eighteenth-century referred to by Steve Fuller in his recent discussion of Snow’s ideas. Just as importantly, it is clear that one discipline can perform functions for which another is less equipped or inclined, say, by literary scholars investigating historical scientists’ diaries, or mathematicians explaining numeric patterns in Alice in Wonderland. What the conference illustrated, therefore, was the multitude of ways in which Snow’s observations still elicit decidedly productive forms of ‘interactional expertise’. In the superb organisation and gracious hosting of this conference, King’s has not only contributed to these interactions but also initiated a thought-provoking model for future forums.

Stella Pratt-Smith, Balliol College,Oxford University

Membership Secretary, British Society for Literature and Science


  1. Stella Pratt-Smith’s avatar

    The website is a useful resource for BSLS members.